Friday, November 16, 2012
Moscow '42 - Interview with David Freer, Project Manager and Lead Scenario Designer
Moscow '42 is the latest John Tiller Software release for the unique Panzer Campaigns series. The operational culmination point of the German Army's offensive against Moscow is just a few weeks old... The Soviets catch their breath and launch a massive offensive. Two colossi clutched in a mortal fight that spans thousands of square kilometers of frozen forests and hills west of Moscow. Nothing was small in the Eastern Front. Neither is the effort of designing and creating historically correct war games that capture the epic proportions of the real conflict. Meet David Freer, project manager and lead designer of Moscow '42.
JC: I would like to start by thanking you for taking time out of your busy schedule. Would you introduce yourself to the readers of the blog?
David: Thanks JC, my name is David Freer; I’m an Aussie living in Singapore. I work for a big US IT Company and I have responsibility for their consumer business across 20 countries in Asia Pacific. I have also been a gamer for as long as I can remember and started on board war games and graduated to all things on the PC after that. I have worked with SSG an Australian PC war game company as well as John Tiller Software – all in my spare time.
JC: What war gaming challenges are in store for the players of Moscow '42?
David: Well firstly, Moscow ’42 was the game I always wanted to play. The team and I included two different experiences with the historical Soviet counteroffensive of winter 1941/42 modeled as well as a hypothetical 2nd attempt by the Germans to capture Moscow during the summer of 1942 (Fall Kreml). This gave us an opportunity to model some very different situations with both sides having the opportunity to attack & defend. There are also 57 different scenarios ranging from tiny 8 turn games up to a monster 576 turn campaign. Hopefully there is something for every avid war gamer!
JC: Moscow '42 depicts the first strategically significant Soviet counteroffensive. The Red Army’s operational repertoire was not yet mature. How does the game reflect that?
David: I think the first important thing to realize is that the Soviets had been counterattacking right from the beginning of the war with the Axis. The operations that began both north and south of Moscow on Dec 5th/6th 1941 were no different. What was different was the impact it had on the Axis forces. The Soviets were very surprised to see how quickly the German front was collapsing and the ground they were retaking. This convinced Stalin to broaden the offensive on Jan 6th, 1942 with ultimately disastrous consequences.
Within the scenarios we have essentially made it very hard for the Germans to hold a long way forward. They are both weak in strength (40% or less) and on the end of very long supply lines. This helps the Soviets pick up momentum. The thing that will stand out to players is how diverse the Soviet forces are. There are Brigades, Divisions, Guards & Siberians. Even the Rifle Divisions are different with some having attached ski troops or mortars while others have machine gun battalions. It really feels like units have been cobbled together and thrown into the battle to stop the German’s reaching Moscow and then pushing them back. The new Rifle & Tank Brigades are probably the best example of the Soviet operational immaturity. These units were setup at a size that most Soviet leaders could handle with the average Division beyond the capabilities of many of the available commanders.
JC: For the German side, the die appears like almost cast for failure. Shortages of fuel, ammunition and extremely poor mobility due to the weather and terrain ... Can I hope to win any scenario as the Germans, just once? How?
David: Yes it’s tough for the all-conquering Germans. There are so many challenges and opportunities when you play with them. The German strength is their fire power man to man as well as their superlative morale. The Soviets though have the advantage in assault and any Russian commander will be trying to engage the Axis forces as quickly as possible. In the winter counteroffensive the Germans are regularly trying just to hold on to what they have with Hitler’s hold fast orders removing the option of bold maneuver. The Germans can stand up to the Soviets but it needs to be on a narrow frontage with paths of retreat and sufficient indirect firepower to disrupt the Soviets before they can mass. Easier said than done! The better way is to take on the Soviets when they have extended themselves and then shoot them up, but this requires time and patience. In many of the Panzer Campaign games previously the Germans have been the aggressors and it’s interesting to see how they cope on the defense in such extreme conditions as portrayed in Moscow ’42.
JC: Also included in Moscow 42', there is another set of scenarios about a hypothetical summer offensive German operation that was planned and all but never executed, Operation Fall Kreml. In this set of scenarios, both the German and Soviet side appear in optimal state of strength and readiness. With so many Armies in the battlefield and so much at stake, this ultimate battle for Moscow feels like a perfect storm scenario. There are huge opportunities for both the Soviets and Germans and the scenarios are very appealing "what ifs" ... Although this question can't be answered within the scope of the Panzer Campaigns engine, what would have been the consequences of a catastrophic defeat for each side if Fall Kreml actually happened?
David: A very interesting question! I am reasonably well read so I will take a stab at answering. For the Axis, there was a very reasonable chance of reaching Moscow. Many of the failing of the previous year had been rectified with replacement troops blooded in the spring as well as new guns and ammunition to handle the previously fearsome KV & T-34 tanks. Couple this with solid planning and flexible, at the front leadership and the advantage is definitely the German way. In addition if the Germans attacked from their northern most positions they are only 80 odd miles from Moscow which is a lot less than the 800 miles that they managed to advance into the Caucasus.
For the Soviets they knew this would be the ultimate battle. They had positioned 60% of the available troops and nearly all their mobile forces in the Moscow region. They expected the Germans to attack Moscow again and tried to position as many units in readiness. Unfortunately many of these forces were untested and there were very clear deficiencies in the new Soviet Tank Corps & Tank Armies.
The more important question is what would have happened if Moscow fell? I don’t believe it would have ended the war. Moscow was the critical metropolitan center in the country and was the nexus for many of their transport and rail lines. That said though, when Moscow was previously threatened in October 1941, the government was readily evacuated further east to Kuibyshev with Stalin only deciding to stay in the capital at the last moment. With much of the critical industry now beyond the Urals and the oil in the Caucasus still in Soviet hands the war would go on. This is not to say it would not impact Soviet morale heavily, but they retained both the manpower and weapons to continue to fight. The Germans would have to cut the Soviet oil supply as well as the lend lease weapon conduits to have a chance of forcing the Soviet Union to capitulate.
If the Germans were defeated in front of Moscow then it’s all over. The best of the Wehrmacht was present in greater numbers than at Stalingrad and if they had a defeat inflicted on them like the 1941/42 winter then there would be little they could do to hold the Soviets back in 1943.
JC: Each Panzer Campaigns release involves intensive team work for the research of orders of battle, map production and the operations themselves. Leading a team through projects of this magnitude is not for the faint of heart … As a veteran of the Tiller team, what’s in your opinion the key to successfully lead a team through such huge projects?
David: Like all things, you have to be passionate. Having done a project like this before it was easier to know the order of tasks and which will require the most time. You have to do a lot of reading even before you start working on the game, otherwise you can end up doing a lot of work that ends up being marginal. I had built a lot of the winter order of battle while reading histories of the Soviet counterattack and ultimately found that I had created one whole Soviet Front (North Western) that would never be used in any scenario.
It is also necessary to understand what the major influences on any battle are before creating scenarios as it’s important to ensure these factors are modeled. The very first scenario created was used to test whether we had the right ‘feel’ for the operations north of Moscow in December 1941. The game parameters were changed a number of times until we felt we had nailed it.
All the above requires a group of dedicated hobbyists willing to put the time in and a project manager who can harness those efforts into producing a game. Ultimately Moscow ’42 was a very intensive effort for 18 months by a lot of people.
JC: Over the years, the Tiller team has been very secretive about what they are working on. So I will not even try. But I can't avoid asking: what's wrong with a tiny bit of hype about upcoming releases?
David: There are always titles that are being worked on. John Tiller runs a very open development in that projects will wax and wane based upon hobbyists participation & enthusiasm levels. Some of these will come out reasonably quickly; others can take over a decade! John does not need the game business for his own personal survival as he does many projects for the government and other big firms. This allows a schedule where the number of games that are released in any particular year can fluctuate. What I can tell you is that it was mentioned earlier in the year that John Tiller Software had 47 different game projects underway and I can only think of 4 that have been released to date – that leaves 43 without anything new being added to the pipeline! My guess is there maybe one more released before the end of the year
JC: In another interview at the Scenario Design Center, you mentioned that you are a veteran "monster gamer" (i.e. somebody who enjoys playing big scenarios with more counters that you can shake a stick at). What's your approach to deal with huge scenarios? What would be your advice for gamers who prefer small scenarios and occasionally foray into the big ones?
David: You have to play the small ones before diving into the big games. It teaches you about the strength and weaknesses of both sides and the units & hardware available to them. The small scenarios are the only way to learn the game system and more importantly the tactical use of your forces. There are actually some great small scenarios with a range of ‘dilemma’s to trouble players.
For the big ones, it is much more important to have a plan. Where are you attacking, which units are leading, who is resting. Do not try and move every unit and designate quiet sectors where you might hold or only do minor readjustments or operations. The campaigns are perfect for multiplayer games. A player needs to realize that they are not winning the war in one day and have to build up momentum over time.
JC: Do you PBEM? What's your most memorable PBEM match?
David: Yes I PBEM, I rarely play against the AI. I have had some fantastic games with one from Kharkov ’43 (Operation Star) being a stand out. In testing I played a full game of the Fall Kreml southern attack campaign which was a lot of fun as well. Both of these PBEM’s had a good mix of hard fighting and maneuver with lots of opportunities for both sides.
JC: Given your work commitments, I assume you fly a lot. Flight time reading: a scholarly article/book or a mass market historical narrative?
A mix of both, that said I am usually on my laptop as soon as we are at cruising altitude and I can tell you a lot of people have asked why I’ve spent most of the trip looking at a map! A lot of Moscow ’42 was done while on the road. The worst thing about travelling is that I can’t carry many of my reference books. I have now taken to scanning sections that I think I will need while away on any particular business trip.
JC: What's your favorite Eastern Front debunked myth?
David: One of the ones that surprised me was the dependence of the Soviets on lend lease, particularly after the winter of 1941. While researching Fall Kreml it became very apparent that the British & US tanks and vehicles provided were the key to allowing the Tank Corps to be formed as quickly as they were. The Soviets have always downplayed the role of lend lease but the continued employment of some tank types (Valentine & Sherman in particular) was vindication of their role on the battlefield.
The other one is actually that Hitler did the right thing going for the Caucasus rather than Moscow. There is a great book by author John Mosier (Hitler vs. Stalin: The Eastern Front 1941 – 1945) where he shows the importance of winning the war economically (taking the Ukraine grain & Caucasus oil) vs. politically (capturing Moscow & Leningrad). The issue the Axis had was that they were not capable of winning the economic war once they became distracted by Stalingrad.
JC: We have seen the computer war gaming scene go through several transformations over the years. Right now, it is apparent that simpler, very approachable games are becoming very popular. Is Panzer Campaigns becoming a niche within a niche?
David: It’s like all things in this internet age. The internet promotes niche interests. It is much easier for like-minded individuals to find ways to interact with each other today as compared to 20 years ago. Personally, I believe games like Panzer Campaigns is played by the older war gamer who remembers pushing cardboard counters around on maps by companies like SPI or Avalon Hill. That said the ‘approachable’ games are like the smaller scenarios previously mentioned. If players are introduced to war gaming through these ‘lite’ games then it gives us a new potential community to step into the more grognard titles. Working for a large company that sells to consumers, I don’t think Panzer Campaigns has been marketed like bigger titles. It has relied on word of mouth which has kept the community small (but vocal!). For the release of Moscow ’42 we have tried to build a little more ground swell by posting on more boards and doing interviews like this one to get the word out.
JC: In your opinion, what is/are the Panzer Campaigns engine biggest achievement/s? In what aspect of grand tactical/operational warfare simulation it falls short?
David: I was really attracted to the game system by the concept of ‘fatigue’. This was a great representation of the time a unit is in action and the debilitating effect that can have. No paper war game had done that before. The interaction between fatigue, losses, replacements and leadership are all very well done and the game system continues to evolve to keep this representation as accurate as possible.
I also think the game system has proven that it can accurately represent all of the combatants and battle fields in World War 2. I haven’t seen that definitively in any other system.
As far as shortfalls, I believe the AI is probably the weakest area. The games are much better PBEM. That said we are now providing suggestion on how to tweak the AI for smaller scenarios that will help improve their replay ability.
JC: The always dramatically announced "death of war gaming": truth, fiction or just bad metrics?
David: I think the fact that World War 2 is a staple of all computer gaming says enough. Many of those players who have played ‘Medal of Honor’ or some other semi-historical game want to understand more of the story. Hardcore war games like Panzer Campaigns will never be huge but players of Panzer General and its ilk are likely to at least look at a title. The good news is there are people out there like the John Tiller team ready to provide games while there is a demand. As I mentioned previously marketing what these games are and bringing new players in are probably the key for continued health in the genre.
JC: The blog has a readership of diverse gaming/simulation interests, but the majority of the readers have a sweet tooth for 3D simulations of war. Sell a Tiller game to one of those guys (I told you this interview was not going to be preaching to the choir ...)
Well I am also a hardcore 3D sim guy (years of IL2 squadrons online!). I found many sim guys wanted to understand the ‘why’ we are fighting. They love to understand their role in the ‘bigger picture’. I think your blog creates a lot of those scenarios.
One of my most memorable sim experiences was when we created a moderated campaign where the individual missions were plotted and the results tracked. Then new missions were created and flown and the process continued. These were all built around the historical battle of Smolensk and by the end of the online battle players were reading the history of the campaign and suggesting way to best represent it! A number actually went and bought Panzer Campaigns: Smolensk ’41 to learn more about the battle.
Another one that I saw was to do with the Combat Mission products. Essentially the Combat Mission battles/engagements are the equivalent to an assault in Panzer Campaigns. A group of simmers used Panzer Campaign: Normandy to play the strategic game and then used the Combat Mission: Normandy to play out the assaults. There are so many different levels of war gaming and many of them can become interrelated when you have a pet area of interest.
JC: Thanks David for your time and congratulations to you and the rest of the team on the release of Moscow '42. Here is to hope that the success continues and that they keep you busy with new projects.
Thanks! There is no dearth of projects if I want to tackle them – I would love to hear from your readers on what they would like to see next…